The season at the Swan Theatre opened with a magnificent production of All's Well That Ends Well. How could the RSC top that? I'll tell you how, with a truly epic production of Othello that left me breathless and speechless. Gregory Doran's impeccable direction creates a feast of visual and aural delight. I have to say right from the start that the RSC at The Swan Theatre have definitely stumbled upon a vein of pure artistic gold. I eagerly await the rest of this stunning season.
What is there to say of this Othello? Why is it so good, so innovative, so spellbinding from beginning to end? The performances are impeccable, the direction stimulating and the design an intelligent evocation of a Cyprus at war against its Turkish invaders. The politics of the sixteenth century flows effortlessly into the politics of this vibrant production, designed by Stephen Brimson Lewis.
For Shakespeare's audience, the history of the troubled island of Cyprus would be as immediate as the second half of the twentieth century is to us. Annexed by Venice in 1489 and swallowed up by the Ottoman Empire in 1571, the battles that raged between the Venetians and the Turks for control of this jewel in the Mediterranean are superbly re-located by Doran's production into a late 1950s Italian expeditionary force attempting to control a soon to be divided Cyprus. Italian soldiers rub shoulders with bejewelled Turkish-Cypriot peasants whilst behind the scenes negotiations occur with bearded Greek Orthodox Patriarchs.
The set is as oppressive as a Guantanamo Bay prison complex, all steel fencing and padlocks, a military fortification and compound that ill-receives the beauty of Desdemona, Othello's latest conquest in a myriad of conquests. This is a hot, sweaty, fly-blown existence, oppressively violent and, like the Cyprus of the 1950s, ready to explode at any moment into bloody internal war.
We are not immediately buried on the island. The play opens in Venice with a star-crossed lover, Roderigo (Mark Lockyer) desperately seeking to gain the affections of the lovely Desdemona. But Desdemona's heart and hand in marriage have already been given to the Moor, Othello. Unknown to her father, she has married the romantic general who comes to Venice 's aid in time of peril.
Roderigo intends to stir up as much malice as possible to this union, and is egged on by Iago, Othello's ensign, later to be promoted lieutenant. Antony Sher commands the stage as Iago with the physical and verbal authority of a sergeant major in a conscript's barrack-room. This is a professional soldier. War-hardened and self-interested, Sher struts in his impeccably polished boots, to all outward appearance an upright and honourable military machine. In fact, Iago is a bitterly twisted individual, the green anguish of jealousy gnawing at his heart.
This play seems to revolve around jealousy, and its awful consequences. A true tragedy in which the great fall through the insidious suggestions of the lowly. Iago hates his leader Othello, not because of his skin, but because of his sexual dynamism. Iago is convinced his wife, Emilia (Amanda Harris), has been between the sheets with his general. Iago's sole motive for existence is to trap the Moor and revenge that which appears to be a figment of Iago's warped imagination.
No tragedy based on extremes of love would be complete without a woman of beauty and virtue to drive men wild. Desdemona is played with chaste sexuality by Lisa Dillon. A Venetian rose transported to a rough army base in the hot Mediterranean , Dillon glides amongst the sweating expeditionary force like Grace Kelly at an Okinawa Veteran's Convention. Dillon is passionate in her love and faithfulness for Othello; a true lady, her downfall is even more poignant since her heart is the purest in Cyprus .
Othello's jealousy is nurtured by Iago who suggests the general's new bride is enamoured with Lieutenant Casio (Justin Avoth). The proof, a strawberry embroidered handkerchief, the beloved family heirloom of Othello and presented to Desdemona. Desdemona loses this token of love, and discovered by Iago's wife Emilia, it finds its way with Iago's help, into Casio's lodgings. Emilia's duty to her husband is countered by her faithfulness to truth, as she denounces him in her own death-throws. Harris is splendid as the soldier's wife, sexually alluring but with a heart of gold tempered with steel.
The hapless Bianca, a Turkish camp-follower desperately in love with Casio, receives Desdemona's handkerchief from her heartless lover, only to become embroiled in Iago's subterfuge. The implied rape of Bianca by the Italian soldiers is a bitter comment on the invading forces. Nathalie Armin is perfect as the seductive local, passionately collaborating with the invading forces and recipient of the wrathful spits of her own kind.
In such a strong cast, it is hard to comment on notable performances, but Ken Bones, as Brabantio, the father of Desdemona, displays dignified indignity at the loss of his daughter to the Moor. Clifford Rose as the Duke of Venice and Vincent Brimble as his envoy, Lodovico, display all the ambassadorial arrogance of their aristocratic breeding. Charles Abomeli, as the faithful aide of Othello, Montano, gives a perfectly balanced and noble performance. Even a lowly 'Soldier' such as Paul O'Mahoney, a bespectacled lackey who enters with a welcome mug of coffee for his superiors, demonstrates the importance of character and commitment in even the tiniest parts. Doran has given free range to this truthful exploration and the result is a vast underbelly of reality to an already great play.
Othello has been mentioned as a character, by I have left off discussing the performance of Sello Maake ka-Ncube until last because everything hinges on the dynamism of the Moor in Shakespeare's creation. Ka-Ncobe is mesmeric in the role, commanding the audience's attention, his eyes, expansive black pools expressive of hate, love, anger. This is a truly remarkable performance. So much of this play revolves around the conflict of cultural difference. White Christian versus Turkish Islam. White patriarchal authority versus the sexual vibrancy of African military skill.
Ka-Ncobe is an actor who has fought his way out of the oppression of Soweto , South Africa , and forged a career as an actor. His cultural identity affects his every gesture, every turn of phrase, every intonation. From a time when white actors 'blacked up' to play Othello, to a time when western educated black actors claimed the part for themselves, there has been an element of 'donning' the Moor's role. Ka-Ncobe returns Othello to his true African roots, a military genius who overcomes prejudice through necessity, but who, 'being wrought', displays his jealousies and angers in a uniquely African way. A great performance from beginning to end.
The death of Desdemona is a stunning moment of theatre. A huge mosquito net surrounds the bed, a shaft of hazy white light ascending to heaven. Inside the net Othello is a caged animal, haunted by his own jealousies. Outside the net he stands black, silhouetted against its stark whiteness as his wife prays for her soul. Here, great performances, Brimson-Lewis's design and Tim Mitchell's lighting merge into one theatrical feast.
I expect you have gathered by now I really enjoyed this production of Othello. The RSC are definitely on a roll, and if the snake-like queue for returns is anything to go by, The Swan will be sold out for the entire season. A flyer inserted in the programme links the production with Thelma Holt and Horipro Inc. I so hope this means an earmark for a West End transfer. Stratford, you are doing us proud.
Kevin Quarmby © 2004